No one could have prepared her for Samantha. Samantha in ankle hiking boots with tube socks rolled neatly down. Samantha laughing, glossy saliva gleaming off clear braces. Samantha quietly sitting at her desk, writing each verse of a poem in a different coloured pen in her notebook. The reserved, symmetrical curve of the h’s and n’s, the last stroke of sparkly blue dollar-store ink almost, but never quite, breaking the faint blue ruled line below it. Samantha Banana. Amanda Moon, a man in the moon. Samantha Lilian Silver, age eleven.
The late, hot summer means the beginning of school in Thornhill, Ontario. Ruth is twelve and a half, but she is already going into grade seven. Through her school bus window, thin maple saplings pass in equidistant formation, separating the white squares of sidewalk from the street. Nascent trees, figments of trees, each held up straight as a stop sign by two stakes and bright green elastic bands on either side.
Thornhill didn’t exist until a few decades ago. Or that’s what Ruth’s dad, who is named David, says. All this was farmland, he says, sweeping one hand at the flat newness outside the windshield while he drives the station wagon up Yonge Street’s northerly tendril, one-storey strip malls on either side. New but not new. In order to be new, there would have to be an old. Thornhill has no old, no before. Only the perpetual now. Now is where David Bornstein wants to be.
The first time Samantha invites Ruth over to her house after school, it means simply getting off the bus a little later. It is easy. Sam lives in a small white house with hedges lining a walkway that leads abruptly to a front door without a porch.
Samantha is half-Jewish. That means one of her parents, her dad, is Jewish, and the other one, her mom, isn’t. But Ruth wonders what all that means. And whether it explains why, although she and Samantha both have brown eyes, Ruth’s hair is dark brown and curly and Samantha’s hair is dark brown and straight. Being half-Jewish gives Samantha a certain something her other friends don’t have. Spending time at Sam’s house has a refreshing laxity. Sam’s family is free of the weekly demand of observing Shabbat, but they have both Christmas and Chanukah. Ruth is fully Jewish. She wonders if there are other things about her that are half, while Samantha is whole.
Ruth stands in front of a display of comic books. She picks up a Batman issue, with art by DeCarlo. She looks at Batman. His muscles are modest compared with the fleshy ripples of other superheroes like the Punisher.
A memory surfaces. She is eight years old. She is at the old house with Mom, before the divorce, in the pinkish bathroom next to her pinkish bedroom. Mom is giving her a bath. She is waiting for the moment when Mom unplugs the drain. When she does, Ruth gets her treat. As the water rushes out, she skids back and forth on her bum, kicking off against the sides of the tub, singing a tune she half-remembers from an ad for a backyard Slip ’N Slide that ran after Power Rangers. She’s been doing this after each bath since she was small. It’s not as fun as it used to be. She’s growing bigger, her skinny legs longer, and the dusty rose tub is shrinking around her. There’s less room for her to play her game. She still does it, tucking her knees up so she can take up less space.
But that is not the memory that comes to Ruth while she looks at comic books. It’s what she saw in the mirror after that bath, when she stood in front of the broad, frameless wall mirror as her mother stood behind her, drying her. She doesn’t typically look at herself in the mirror. But this time, she notices her skinny chest and arms.
Ruth lifts both arms into a muscle-man pose. Tiny bulges form on nine-year-old biceps. Doing this is satisfying. Her chest is flat and smooth, with small brownish nipples.
“Mom,” she says. “Aren’t I strong?”
Her mother looks at her daughter’s face in the mirror, hesitating, then agrees that she is strong. Ruth feels as if something inside her has slid into place. Underneath her black hair cut into a schoolgirl bob, bangs tangling with indistinct black eyebrows, she is growing the body that she wants.
Samantha and Ruth sit in the younger girl’s bedroom. Samantha is a year younger, but she seems to have a clearer idea than Ruth of what they will do, how they will spend the hours before dinner. She sits on the carpeted floor next to her single bed, and Ruth does the same. Samantha turns on a small Casio boom box in her bedroom. She presses play on a cassette tape. It’s called With the Beatles and it has a stark-looking black-and-white cover. They listen to the jangly guitars, which sound happier than the cover looks. Samantha says her father has a lot of this band’s records that the family listens to downstairs, but that she had asked for the cassette so she could play it in her room. Ruth contemplates the idea of a family listening to music together.
Ruth isn’t sure what to do while the music plays. She looks at the cassette insert for a while, the floating moons of the boys’ faces. Samantha’s shins and ankles are planted into the broadloom. Sam’s legs are strong-looking, thicker than hers, with the tiny, dark beginnings of stubble. Ruth doesn’t shave yet, and she looks at the smooth, speckled skin. She realizes that the black flecks must be embarrassing for Samantha in some minor way, and she feels an urge to say something nice about the leg and its hair. To run her fingertips over the black dots and feel them catching at her fingertip ridges like Braille. To say that the skin feels smooth.
Ruth and Sam are lying alongside Beth Grainger on the cream broadloom of Beth’s bedroom, listening. Beth is an only child, like Ruth, so her bedroom is as big as a living room. Around the three girls lie multiple record sleeves with creased corners and faded images that show confident, unbridled, sometimes lost-looking young men in creative poses with artsy backgrounds.
Beth has long, dirty blond hair in pigtails. Sam and Ruth had been murmuring the lyrics to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” one day in class, and the introverted girl next to Sam had stopped drawing wizards in her math homework and looked over at them. She said her dad had all those old records at home. She said that he said that the Beatles were okay but they were a little silly — just four silly, pretty boys in fussy suits. He said the Who were real men, because they were louder. Real rock men. Them and Zep.
The three girls start going to Beth’s house after school to listen to records. They never go to Ruth’s house because her dad doesn’t have any records, so Ruth never invites them over and they don’t ask. She knows no one wants to listen to her dad play his Israeli hit “Bashana Haba’ah,” inevitable prelude to slightly exaggerated tales of volunteering for the Six-Day War in ’67 (never saw action, hung around a kibbutz for six months after). Her dad isn’t like the other dads. Instead, she asks to watch Beth’s dad’s rock movies. The Beatles run campily from fans in A Hard Day’s Night. One night they have a sleepover, eat gummy candy and watch Quadrophenia, based on the Who’s album of the same name, with its dark yet glamorous themes of rebellion and street gangs.
Each of the three stakes out a favourite Who boy and Beatles boy. Without discussing it, they are careful that their choices don’t overlap, which they all know would be a violation of implicit etiquette. It is understood that these musicians would have been their boyfriends.
Sam talks non-stop about her favourite, Keith Moon. He played drums for the Who and was famous for smashing them on stage. He took the most drugs of any of the musicians and died of an overdose. She says his name often, sometimes in an overly familiar comment; at other times, she intones it softly to herself as she looks at his picture.
“Keith really hated that hotel. That’s why he destroyed his room.”
“Keith just wanted attention. He wanted to be loved.”
“They never gave him enough attention, so he had to be loud.”
Then, one day: “Keith loved me.”
Beth and Ruth glance at one another.
“What’d you say?”
“He did. Because I was his wife.”
“My name wasn’t Samantha then — it was Amanda. Amanda Moon.”
“I tried to help him. We loved each other so much. But I couldn’t help him. So he died.”
Ruth walks down Clark Street toward Atkinson, which will take her to Tangreen Circle and her house. She passes one maple sapling every ten steps. She sees a stand selling the Canadian Jewish News. There is a story about a famous Lubavitcher Rebbe visiting Toronto.
She thinks about the black-and-white pictures of people thirty years before. All those ecstatic people. Maybe some other people didn’t like it. All that happened, she thought, but we don’t talk or live like that now.
“You need a person for you to be in your past life,” Sam says to Ruth one day. It was during an afternoon they had spent at Sam’s house when Beth had been sick. Sam talked about what her life had been like back when she was Amanda, and what she had looked like: a willowy, beautiful, sad-eyed woman. She never mentioned that it was Keith Moon’s daughter who was named Amanda, and not his wife, who had been named Kim. Beth and Ruth don’t learn until years later that Sam simply hadn’t liked the name Kim; she had liked Amanda.
“I do?” Ruth says.
“What if I knew you then? I probably did.”
Ruth has never imagined herself as anyone other than who she is. The invitation to do so is bewildering, intoxicating. She thinks about the world inside the black-and-white photos, people with glossy dark bangs and wide pouf sleeves and black eyes, eyes made black by the camera. The men: feminine, with long hair and vulnerable, thin faces.
“I don’t think I would have been a girl,” Ruth says slowly.
“No,” Sam says after a moment. “Maybe you weren’t one then. That sometimes happens with past lives.”
“Maybe I was a guy,” Ruth says. All those parties, with their mixes of band members and hangers-on and journalists and managers. People glance up for a second before the flash. “I wasn’t in a band — I was a writer. I took pictures.”
“Your name was Ron,” Sam says. “I remember you.”
Something within Ruth slides into place.
“We all died at the end of the seventies right before we were born here in Thornhill,” Sam says.
Beth did too, they tell her, though she hesitates to say what her past-life name was, responding in a monosyllable when they ask.
“Then our souls floated around for a while. Then we came back here, in Canada, to live with our parents.”
Their old classic rock history book lies open yet again to the Annie Leibovitz photo of John and Yoko, its carefree nudity, the tense, pale J-shape of his body against her dark clothing. Ruth is examining with curiosity the faintly visible line in the centre of John’s skinny white butt, curving down and disappearing between his legs — the buttcrack of a Beatle! — when she realizes Samantha is sniffling. She sees her gazing down again at a page in her hardcover prestige-format biography of the Who from Beth’s dad’s library. Another picture of Keith: a strained smile, sweaty, his eyes wild. Sam’s eyes are wet and rimmed with pink, her cheeks flushed.
“They just wouldn’t leave us alone,” she says.
Ruth pauses. “Who wouldn’t?”
Sam’s face crumples. “The reporters,” she says, her voice a high whine. “The fans. All of them. They didn’t understand. All we wanted was to be left alone!”
It is a Thursday in history class when they have to turn in one page about the British North America Act. Everyone passes their paper to the child in front of them, until all reach Mr. Fordclaw’s desk.
Sam’s paper is in the stack handed to Ruth, who too late glimpses its top-right corner, the name traced in sparkly light-blue ink, its letters the same size as others on the page but canted to the right, its n’s sporting long tails that cascade down through the blue ruled line, ending in a decorative star. She sees this only as the papers disappear into the hand of the bored student in front of her, away into the dull, beige afternoon: by Mandy Moon.